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"Storm Tracking"
Whether you plan to putrun or ride through weather,
preparation is your best ally
By John Wooldridge
June 2002 Yachting


Outside the protective walls and sturdy pilothouse windows of the Nordhavn 40, winds whistled through the towing rig, punctuated by torrential blasts of horizontally driven rain. Waves ranging from 8 to 10 feet in height regularly lifted our stern, while a secondary set measuring nearly the same rolled in on us from the port side.

Roughly halfway through the early edition of my twice-daily 3:00 to 6"00 watch, I wondered how many new owners of passagemaking vessels such as this one, which was more than 4,000 miles away from home and on its way around the world, would eventually have to face conditions like these. We were about 100 miles from our nearest harbor of refuge, plowing into a tropical depression that was building into a late-season Pacific typhoon.

Ironically, the storm had backtracked to a position that placed our divert destination on the northeast rim of an expanding low pressure system that would not let us escape on any heading.

I thought about how I would advise owners of full-displacement, 7- to 12- knot cruising vessels to prepare for heavy weather on long passages.

Whether you're crossing Lake Michigan or heading from Majuro to Phonpei in Micronesia, as we were, detailed route and weather planning is a must. To pick the optimum time and route for our voyage based on seasonal weather patterns, we consulted professional meteorologist Walt Hack and referenced a copy of Jimmy Cornell's Cruising Routes of the World. Electronic and backup paper charts helped minimize the danger of entering new harbors. Twice a day, we downloaded weather forecasts through a satellite phone to the navigator software that ran the updates as overlays on laptop-displayed nav charts. An animation feature showed the potential storm track three days out.

My advice, after surviving this storm, is that you consider staying put in a known, safe anchorage if the weather looks questionable in the direction of your destination during the coming three days. If you have no schedule to keep, settle in and wait the weather out.

If you must depart, have at least one safe harbor you can divert to should conditions deteriorate. Few passagemaking boats have the speed to outrun a system, but most can change course radically. Heading south or east away from a counterclockwise-spinning low that is tracking north and west can improve your chances of missing the storm or buy time if it backtracks.

When you are committed to riding out weather and have the choice, run down swell. Doing so can offer more comfort and control when conditions deteriorate. Monitor speed and heading to prevent surfing down the face of an overtaking wave and plunging the bow into the wave ahead. Slowing engine speed works in most situations, but be prepared to stream heavy lines aft for increased drag.

Heading into building waves demands exhaustive attention to course and direction to prevent accidentally turning beam-to in large seas. Having a well-maintained hydraulic roll-dampening system will greatly increase your comfort on either heading, while an auxiliary towed-passive mechanical system will increase your options, drag and peace of mind in case of hydraulic failure.

Finally, be prepared to ride out a storm whether you encounter one or not by never leaving shorthanded.

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Nordhavn 40 Around the World Voyage